Friday, July 12, 2013

Theatre: Yirra Yaarnz

Yirra Yaakin
directed by Eva Grace Mullaley
performed by Zac James, Mathew Cooper, Shakara Walley and Amy Smith
Blue Room Theatre
9 – 13 July, 2013
Shakara Walley (pic: Ashley de Prazer)
If the Yirra Yaakin production that closes the Blue Room’s first 2013 season is any gauge, the development of Aboriginal writers and performers in WA is in good hands.
Seven young writers (four of whom also perform) have taken up the challenge of creating short theatre pieces with the overarching theme of the river, and the result – brought together as Yirra Yaarnz – is diverse, compelling and insightful.
Much credit is due to the dramaturg Hellie Turner and project manager Irma Woods for a fine job of tending the material, and the director Eve Grace Mullaley and designer Daniel Ampuero for giving it an understated yet focused staging. The four actors, all graduates of WAAPA’s Aboriginal Theatre course, give clear, measured performances with much emotional subtlety.
The Welcome to Country is an integral, though sometimes under-appreciated, part of indigenous performance. Barry McGuire, a Balladong Noongar man of the Wadjuk Country, gave an often very funny Welcome that emphasised the significance of yarn spinning to all Australian cultures, including its oldest.
These Yirra Yaarnz are not campfire tales or myths and legends, though, but authentic insights into Aboriginal life, the damage it has suffered and the strengths that sustain it.
What results can be brutal, as is Andrea Fernandez’s rape story, fiercely performed by Shakara Walley, or whimsical, like Rayma Morrison’s Kurrajong, but each piece is about the things that make up life.
It’s easy to compare this writing for the stage with that of Tim Winton, whose Signs of Life and, inevitably, Cloudstreet, travel some like paths.
It’s not an odious comparison. At their best, a chilling moment in Amy Smith’s superb Tilly’s Mono when the river water becomes still over the narrator’s diving son, there’s a universe of foreboding and rising grief (happily, this time, averted) that, like Winton’s best, draws you into the contemplative silence at the heart of art.
Walley is magnificent in Tilly’s Mono, and powerful and stately throughout. Smith is a sharp, alert actor with a neat playfulness that serves her well in Zac James’s flirtatious Torn Scene 1 and Walley’s sardonic Basil. James and the cast’s other writer/performer, Matthew Cooper, are convincing and charismatic in all their pieces.
Last year’s Yirra Yaakin production at the Blue Room, Black Like Michael Jackson, lost something by sometimes re-stating the obvious about the indigenous experience. I have no such qualms about the courageous and finely wrought Yirra Yaarnz. 

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 11.7.13   

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